By Nesreen Salem
The video that emerged from Hama, Syria, depicting the stoning of a woman in yet another episode in the ISIS propaganda series, is the first punishment of its kind to emerge from Hama. The video shows a married woman who has been presumably promiscuous and has therefore deserved under Sharia law to be stoned to death. It jumps to the carrying out of the sentence in the presence of witnesses, her father and the commander, who is in charge of managing both the punishment and the media coverage of the event.
The woman in question bows obediently to her prosecutors, begging for her father’s forgiveness while simultaneously accepting that she is worthy of this punishment. The father, on the other hand, is unwilling to grant her forgiveness and tells her that she is no longer his daughter. The commander then appeals to the father by telling him that God is merciful and will forgive her sin once she carries out the punishment; therefore, he should not hold back his forgiveness. Another man dressed in black also echoes the same sentiments and what culminates in an ironic display of the prosecutors defending the girl to her father. The father reluctantly nods in his daughter’s direction, pretending to accept the advice albeit reluctantly. However, when she asks him to pray for her, he walks away angered claiming that it is too much to ask of him.
In a Jerry Springer talk show style, the commander then asks the woman to give advice to her fellow womankind to learn from her mistakes. She replies obligingly that she beseeches all women to protect their honour more than their own lives. She also beseeches fathers to choose their daughters’ future husbands wisely. Facing the camera, the charismatic commander then addresses his viewers with a pep talk that appears to reflect a religious piety that is pronounced in both his appearance and his recitation of Islamic doctrines. Humiliated and shunned, the scene ends with the stoning of the woman as she says her last shihada (confirmation of Islamic faith).
Though their interpretation of Sharia laws is unquestionably perverted, taking religious jurisprudence out of social and historical context and ignoring centuries of philosophical debates, their practice seems to be faced by very little resistance. The enslavement of Yazidi women and selling them in what appears to be an open slave market, arguing that they are not Muslim therefore their capture means they become slaves to their captors, shows that these individuals have spent much time being moulded into this medieval way of thinking. It is difficult to imagine that such individuals walk amongst us. Yet they exist, in almost a parallel universe, trafficking and committing atrocities we have not heard of since medieval European history. And they’re not alone. On the Nigerian side, Boko Haram continues to kidnap women to use and sell them to their soldiers. Both ISIS and Boko Haram clearly lack a basic understanding of the religion they’re usurping to achieve their political goals.
Neither a western journalist nor a humanitarian worker, this woman will remain nameless, faceless and forgotten while other women will walk her plank and face the same consequences. Regardless of her crime, members of ISIS have taken to the bizarre and non-negotiable exegesis of the Quran and Prophet Mohamed’s hadith, proclaiming themselves gods upon the lands they walk. Their message is clear and simple: we are applying the rule of God. If you disagree, you are a kafir and your blood is legitimate.
Hence, practicing Muslims in the areas taken by ISIS cannot argue with this logic for two reasons: they cannot be seen to defy ISIS, who are clearly organised and powerful; going against Sharia laws puts their own faith into question. The incident puts into perspective the extent to which members of ISIS are observant and diligent of the flock of people they capture or oversee, for this nameless woman would have been caught in the act and witnessed by four witnesses or her husband in order for her to be punishable under Sharia law – if indeed that was the method chosen to prosecute her.
What is worrying, is that many – and they are not a few in the region – will sympathise with this ruling, claiming that if the woman had committed adultery then she deserved it, and that by God’s law this is an acceptable punishment. Many so called Muslim ‘moderates’ – many of Muslim Brotherhood backgrounds – have become sympathisers of ISIS and view them as the prophesised ‘chosen army’ that will raise the Islamic flag in the region once more.
Islamic scholars such as Sheikh Qaradawi and radical preacher Wagdy Ghoneim, have voiced their support for ISIS arguing they have something in common with them, and that is their faith, and that their enemy, the imperialist powers of the West, is one.
Though they would not be classified as moderate preachers, they stand on a firm platform that appeals to many Sunni Muslims who are. Their influence in the Sunni world cannot be underestimated. It seems that the logic behind their argument appeals to many Muslims who are not known to be extreme in their beliefs hence planting the seeds of radicalisation within a population that could have potentially gone either way. It is often not so much an idea, but the rejection of an idea that unites people. It may be that ISIS are violent, uncompromising, intolerant, some may argue, however they are Muslims and they are fighting strong against the imperialist powers and they’re gaining – “God must be on their side”.
Every day it seems that ISIS proves to itself and the world that it is a force to be reckoned with, and sympathisers are starting to believe that they will be the answer to fighting the trinity of Evil: the Shia Muslims, Israel and the West, regardless of the fact that they are currently targeting other Sunni Muslims in their attempt to cement rule. In their cleansing campaign, it is the weak and minorities who have been the easiest targets so far; this woman being a recent example to add to their prosecution of Yazidi tribes and the Iraqi Christians.
Though perceived as a threat to the region, their rule is no different to the law applied in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, for example. Weekly beheadings are witnessed in public after Friday prayers in major mosques. Foreign workers are treated as slaves who are owned by their sponsors. Much physical abuse and violence goes unreported or unrecognised and hence unpunished. It seems that the only problem a country like KSA has with ISIS is not so much the ideology but who gets to wrestle the power and apply it.
When Mohamed Morsi was ousted by the Egyptian army, many grew disillusioned with the idea of democracy and what outcomes it may bring, favouring taking the law – and weaponry – into their own hands. Egypt today fairs worse under Al-Sisi’s rule than it did under Mubarak in terms of cultivating a police state and a culture of oppression: seeds that will be sowed in further radicalism and extremism which the region is yet to see an end of in sight. Speaking to many who had voted for Morsi during the elections, many voiced the theme that they are fighting Islam, and those who fight Islam have to be fought. The continuation of Muslim Brotherhood led protests in small towns and villages in Egypt reflects a constantly present anger; one that can easily translate into violence if not appeased somehow.
Disillusionment is immeasurable. Families continue to be politically torn for many have had to pay a high price since the 25 January Revolution, in what they now view as a lost cause. Qatar became an escape haven to those who have been agitated by the Egyptian authorities. And although Qatar has had to recently deport a number of Muslim Brotherhood members to appease its neighbours, Turkey has proven once again that it is still their Ottoman go-to-guy.
A world within a world – Islamic within oil rich imperialism – threatens to implode taking everything with it. Egyptian authorities in particular should be asking themselves: could these forms – and magnitudes – of terrorism have been avoided had they been able to deal with civil society in better ways since the coup of 1952?
This woman is but a sample of the civilians who have suffered within such autocratic governments. Though faceless and nameless, the world should be shaken with anger after witnessing how the woman had succumbed to her brutal punishment. It is a reflection of a not-so-small sect of women all over the Middle East who have been enslaved by men practicing an intolerant dogma that is alien to any religion, let alone Islam.
Nesreen Salem is a writer/commentator on political and cultural affairs. She is a doctoral student at Birkbeck University of London and the Egyptian Women’s Union representative in the UK. Follow her on Twitter @_Schehrazade_